Interview with Elena Gross
Have you ever heard that saying?
You know the one that goes, “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice?”
It’s complicated and my proximity to it has always fluctuated. Assuming the position of the “blackest berry,” which conjures up an image of the blackberry fruit, has historically been a proposition for Black femininity. As a Black queer woman, I’ve never been able to identify with the objectification embeded in the presentation of this phrase; I’ve never felt quite complete in my “blackberry-ness.”
My mission is to find other queer Black femmes, with varied gender presentations, who are also at odds with the ways Black women have been represented. These are the stories of other Blackberries, those Black femme bodies that feel as though they don’t quite fit the stereotypical image of Black femininity. They haven’t quite defined their place within the scope of Black queerness. They haven’t the language to describe their form. They haven’t quite processed the difficulties around what their external body image presents to the world. These are the Blackberry Archives, telling the stories that pave a path toward defining the nuances of the Black femme figure, the Black femme figure as anti-structure.
The first in this series is Elena Gross.
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Elena, 27, is originally from Maryland and came to the Bay Area to go to graduate school at the California College of the Arts. By day, she works as a gallery assistant at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. By night, she is a freelance writer and the host of what are you looking at, a podcast produced through Art Practical.
What do you think of when you hear “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice?”
When I hear the phrase, I immediately think of childhood and hearing it as a common colloquial phrase growing up. It was used more often by men in situations in which they are relaying their attraction to women (not just black black women, but this idea of natural black women). It is referring to black women with natural hair, black women who are darker or curvier, and it’s posed in this oppositional way, as if there’s this one mode of black women.
It is also used in a ‘black is beautiful,’ ‘black power’ sentiment, but I’ve noticed that it is usually within a specifically heterosexual framework and within this idea of coupling linked to the way men look at black women.
What are three words that come to mind when you think of a blackberry?
What are three words that come to mind when you think of a black body?
Hard but also soft (those two can never be separated in my understanding of them).
What is one word from both that you relate to your body?
Definitely hard/soft because I feel like you can’t separate them when you think about black bodies.
Ripe, because I’m always in this state or process of becoming, always being ripe for change. The idea of ripeness comes from having been built up, as though it is a stage you reach, and maybe it’s the climax of this fruit, but there is also a whole stage after it becomes ripe.
But I think of the experiences and the life you live as always accumulating to this point—in the sense of feeling like a constant state of ripeness—it’s never the beginning or end, it’s always like a state of constantly unfolding.
In what ways have you had to de/re-construct your body?
I feel like my whole life I’ve been reconstructing my body. I’ve had all these aspirational fantasies about who I want to be, and who I want to look like, and how I want to be perceived. But deconstructing that has felt like realizing that who I want to be/look like/be perceived as is not how I am being perceived. So, I’m instead trying to mold myself more into the person I actually am.
Would you consider yourself within the lineage of blackberries, as a black femme body, and if so how do you feel you fit amongst other blackberries?
It’s the eternal struggle of both distancing myself and moving closer. My love and appreciation for black femmes and blackberries has grown immensely in my time as an adult and starting to overcome the internalized sexist, internalized racist perceptions and systems that I was indoctrinated into. So my appreciation for it, my love for it, and my enjoyment of black femme identity has grown.
Now there’s a new movement that affirms that femininity isn’t on this white beauty standard and that black femininity looks very diff. I’m proud of that on one hand and can understand how I fit within that spectrum, but on the other hand, it doesn’t feel as comfortable for me. It feels like there’s still a binary, and as black femme has become a broader category, non-black femme has become a smaller category, and I don’t know how to establish my own presence being in those spaces.
I’m still figuring it out. And part of me wants to say that we just have a lot further to go in terms of understanding what black femme identity can be, and therefore what black identity—especially queer identity—can be. We are hopefully coming to a point where there are more black weirdos who are able to say, I don’t fit into either of these categories, so I’m going to see what’s out there and I’m going to establish new categories.